Cancer treatment delays due to COVID-19 could mean up to 35,000 extra deaths

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New research for BBC Panorama: Britain’s Cancer Crisis warns that there could be up to 35,000 more cancer deaths next year due to the impact of coronavirus.

Urgent referrals for cancer care have dropped and with treatments delayed or cancelled, and a significant backlog for cancer screening, resulting in delayed or missed diagnoses, tens of thousands of cancer patients could lose their lives.

Deborah James, a reporter with stage four bowel cancer who presents the award-winning BBC podcast ‘You, Me and The Big C’, led the BBC Panorama investigation. She was one of the lucky ones whose cancer treatment continued during lockdown, but many others were not so fortunate.

Deborah told The Sun: “We stayed at home, protected the NHS and saved lives. We flattened the Covid curve, but it’s terrifying to see how cancer is likely to be the collateral damage.

“I have seen too many friends have their treatment stopped, operations cancelled and I have lost friends.”

One such friend is Kelly, a young mother who died a few weeks’ ago after her chemotherapy treatment was halted due to COVID-19.

Kelly bravely recorded her part of the Panorama programme just 10 days before she died. She told Deborah:

“(Without Covid) I don’t think I’d be in this position. I’m angry I got put on this break because I don’t think I should have. I’m at angry at Covid because it’s made me take a six-week break and it’s put me into this situation. I’m terrified. Absolutely terrified. I don’t want to die. I feel like I’ve got so much more to do.”

Deborah says: “Kelly had incurable cancer, we knew that, but we will never know how much longer she could have had if Covid hadn’t struck. That’s what I can’t get my head around.”

Mary Smith, Associate Legal Director of Novum Law and expert on patient safety issues was interviewed by Deborah in the Panorama broadcast. She said:

“The impact of diagnosis and treatment delays has been really harrowing for patients. I’ve had people who have had chemo cancelled, young parents who have died… One oncologist told me that even if we operated at 125 per cent capacity, it would take us more than a year to clear the backlog.

“The medical experts that I work with are telling me that the private hospitals they work from are requisitioned but broadly are not being used at anywhere near capacity. The beds are empty, the diagnostic suites are empty and that’s a real concern because if those were being fully utilised, then many, many patients would have access to diagnostics and treatment.”

Novum Law client Wendy Peake is also featured in the programme. Wendy, who has a rare eye cancer which has spread to her liver, had her potentially life-saving cancer treatment stopped at the start of lockdown.

She told Deborah: “We sat there and we cried. To see such anguish on my girls’ faces, to see their desperation, which was way more than mine, was just heart-breaking.

“I gasped at the cost of it (£240,000 for private treatment). My husband said whatever it is, we will do it. If we have to remortgage the house, we will do it. But to me it seems grossly unfair that we have been put in this situation when we are all so vulnerable.”

Wendy and her family are trying to raise the money needed to fund her treatment privately, while she is still a candidate for it. Her daughters, India, and Bella, have set up a GoFundMe page.

Another Novum Law client Sherwin Hall, who suffered significant delays to his cancer diagnosis told the programme: “I was begging for a scan. They just kept giving me painkillers. I kept going back to the A&E, back to the A&E. They said that due to COVID-19, there was a delay and I’d be lucky to get my scan in two months. When I finally got my scan, I had a 14cm tumour in my pelvis and more than 20 in my lungs.

“I am upset and I am devastated. I’ve got between three months and a year, and my best case is two years…”

Speaking about the disruption to cancer care services at the start of lockdown, Professor Pat Price, a clinical oncologist and a champion for radiotherapy told Panorama that she is unhappy with the guidelines which were issued to radiologists at the outset.

She said: “The guidelines for radiotherapy and Covid-19 advised people to delay and avoid radiotherapy in some circumstances. I think the guidelines were suggesting that we should be not giving [radiotherapy] all the time, at that time, which was in retrospect, not the best advice. I think it was a very high risk strategy.”

She explained that in some hospitals radiotherapy equipment was “lying idle which could have saved lives.”

She said: “It has been safe to give radiotherapy during Covid-19, we know that now… the machines are here, we haven’t been allowed to switch them on properly. We were told not to do this.

“We are looking at a huge number of unavoidable deaths and we need to address it because there are patients we can cure and we want to get on with it, but we haven’t been allowed to do it. And this is all too little, too late. We’ve got to get on with it, we need to save lives.”

If you or a loved one has suffered due to misdiagnosis, delayed diagnosis, delayed treatment or treatment errors, then please get in touch. Call Novum Law on Freephone 0800 884 0777, email: or complete the enquiry form on this page.

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